Phils Sign Qualls To Unnecessary Deal

The Phillies signed reliever Chad Qualls to a one year deal worth $1.15 million on Tuesday. The move is likely their last of the offseason as the major league roster is close to filled and the team is right up against the luxury tax threshold. While one year deals almost always benefit the team, and while $1.15 million isn’t exactly a king’s ransom, the deal doesn’t make much sense for the Phillies, who have a number of relief pitching prospects knocking on the door.

For a team that reportedly does not want to pay any luxury tax, signing Qualls for three times what one of Michael Schwimer, Justin De Fratus or Phillippe Aumont would make is an odd course of action.

Every half-a-million dollars is of material significance to the Phillies at this juncture, and the potential trade-offs here are the stunted development of prospects and reduced payroll flexibility down the road to bolster the roster if the need arises.

This is the perfect example of a deal that looks great until context is introduced. It won’t kill the Phillies at all, and there are certainly positives to having a durable groundballing reliever on the roster: Qualls has a career 57.5 percent groundball rate and has made more appearances since 2005 than any other pitcher.

However, if the Phillies never pursued him, it’s not as if fans would have aggressively clamored for him, as many were content to see what some of the youngsters can offer. Under that guise, he is the very definition of an unnecessary addition, one that might work out, but wasn’t on anyone’s radar, and shouldn’t have a material effect on the team’s success in the coming season. But given the fact that the Phillies guaranteed his salary at the major league level, he is going to play a more prominent role on the team, especially given Charlie Manuel‘s proclivity to use experience as a crutch to put veterans in spots they no longer belong.

A team doesn’t sign Qualls to pitch the sixth inning, so odds are he’ll be splitting setup duties with Jose Contreras and Antonio Bastardo, if not taking them outright.

Speaking of Contreras, it’s entirely possible that this move signals that the Phillies lack confidence in his ability to stay healthy this year. If Contreras can stay on the mound, there is even less of a need for another reliever. Without knowing the details of his rehab and progress it’s tough to tell what he’ll provide this season. In that case, Qualls is like a setup man insurance policy. If Contreras can’t pitch much, Qualls can step right in. If Jonathan Papelbon gets hurt, one of Contreras or Qualls could fill in, as the Phillies are a team that typically values experience in the closer role. But if everyone remains healthy the Phillies bullpen doesn’t make much sense.

Papelbon closes after Contreras sets him up. Kyle Kendrick — who was recently guaranteed $3+ million in an arbitration-avoiding contract — serves as the long-man and spot starter. In between those three are Antonio Bastardo, Dontrelle Willis, Chad Qualls, Michael Stutes, and an open spot for David Herndon or one of the aforementioned relief prospects. The Phillies could also choose to lump Stutes in with that group and allot two roster to Stutes, Herndon, Aumont, De Fratus and Schwimer. It would represent a novel approach to their roster construction that would give the prospects a better chance to stick in the major leagues. The more likely scenario is that Stutes and Herndon fill out the final two spots while the prospects fill in when injuries arise.

What makes the situation more confusing is that the Phillies witnessed, via Michael Stutes last season, how an unheralded relief pitching prospect can perform well over a small sample of innings. They may value experience, but Stutes was immediately thrust into higher leverage situations and thrived. His peripheral numbers invited much-merited skepticism, but that doesn’t invalidate his success last year. It’s less understandable that a team wouldn’t give ample opportunity to their reliever prospects when they just experienced the benefits of decent production at the league minimum salary.

As for Qualls, a declining strikeout rate is a concern, but he limits free passes and keeps the ball on the ground. If he can get back to the 7+ K/9 area and sustain his groundball rate, he can pitch very effectively and potentially provide surplus value on top of the deal. Sans context, it’s a good deal for the Phillies, as $1.15 million for one season hardly seems prohibitive.

But the Phillies have had to make moves at the trade deadline in each of the last three seasons, and the difference between Qualls’ salary and the league minimum may end up being more significant than the difference in production between him and, say, De Fratus. In the end, this isn’t a crippling move by any means but one that doesn’t really move the needle or bolster the roster.




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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.


40 Responses to “Phils Sign Qualls To Unnecessary Deal”

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  1. Brad Johnson says:

    It’s a depth signing, pure and simple. As you pointed out, Contreras’ health is hardly guaranteed. The club really lacks an established set up man altogether, so it’s good to have a variety of options to turn to.

    All of the veterans in the pen except Papelbon are free agents in 2013. If they happen to block a couple of still developing relievers until then, the Phillies just shift the value they get from those players a year forward.

    At this time next year, we’ll better know if Aumont, De Fratus, Schwimer, and Stutes are all deserving of major league roster spots. Right now, some doubt remains. True, they are all at the point of their careers where we could learn about them faster in the majors, but it’s hardly hurting their development to wait a bit.

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  2. Evan says:

    Herndon does not belong on the major league roster. This move is still 5x better than the ridiculous amount that Kyle Kendrick is making for bringing his unique brand of awful to Philadelphia next year.

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      The one thing worth noting about Kendrick is that the Phillies potentially lack major league quality backup SPs. We could argue whether that phrase describes Kendrick, but the results have been there 4 out of 5 seasons and projection systems peg him for a ~4.30 ERA. That’s a reasonable number for a backup #5 starter. But that’s a digression, the Phillies have to have somebody who can step in if Blanton or Worley struggle or if any of the top five hit the DL. It’s hard to imagine a team like the Phillies counting on Jonathan Pettibone, Austin Hyatt, and Julio Rodriguez to fill that role.

      In retrospect, the Phillies could have easily signed a similarly talented pitcher for less, but it was harder to guess that back when they had to make the decision to offer arbitration.

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      • Mark says:

        They could have signed any number of pitchers to a MLC had they waited. They might not have known who at the time, but that’s no excuse. Or they could have released Kendrick and attempted to sign him to a lesser deal.

        It’s also worth noting that while the K rate dropped for Qualls, so did the walk rate. So the K:BB remained similar to 2010. Obviously you’d rather have the stronger K rate, but it wasn’t mentioned anywhere that the BB rate dropped along with the K rate which is why he remained at a similar level of effectiveness (at least via XFIP between 2010/2011).

        And there’s really no such thing as a bad one year deal. Qualls is a cheap, productive guy who gives them insure in case a reliever goes down. If the other RP prospects had failed, I can pretty much guarantee there would have been articles going “Why didn’t the Phillies sign a veteran RP for cheap?”.

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      • Mark says:

        Insurance*. Not insure :(.

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      • hk says:

        Those same projection systems peg Joel Pineiro, who they signed to a minor league contract, to a similar ERA. Many bloggers and fans criticized the tendering of Kendrick solely on the basis that he would get ~$3.5M to produce what would project to be easily replaceable results. Why was this harder for the Phillies to guess?

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  3. Toz says:

    Eric, do you really want the fans running the Phillies? “it’s not as if fans would have aggressively clamored for him, as many were content to see what some of the youngsters can offer.” I think this sets a dangerous precedent, and, frankly, who cares what the fans think about Schwimmer versus Qualls?

    Schwimmer – 14 major league innings, with a 36% LD% and 4.40 BB/9.

    Aumont – 53IP over AA and AAA, with 5.50 BB/9, after a horrendous 2010

    Herndon – 5.08 FIP.

    Qualls had a horrendous 2010 and his K/9 is dropping off. He does, however, wheel off groundballs at a pretty good clip, with better overall results than Herndon.

    If we’re this excited about Schwimmer, De Fratus and Aumont, I think we’re in trouble.

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    • Evan says:

      All three of those minor league pitchers are good options for the pen, just not at the same time. Aumont might need to show he can lower his walk rate in AAA, but his strikeout rate is promising.

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  4. Tony says:

    Eric, do you think that the lux tax situation for the phils is more important for this year or next year? As in, the penalty they face this year is minimal and affordable unless they really want to bring in an expensive piece, but it facing repeat offender status could prevent say, resigning hamels, victorino or pence.

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    • Joecatz says:

      The phils goal is to stay under this season, and if they go over next year, when the tax is still the same, so be it, they’ll pay it at the first time rate. In 2014 the limit increases to 189mm, so in theory, they won’t pay then.

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  5. Mike says:

    All those young guys will still get a chance. Guys get hurt or are ineffective every year – you’ll use at least a dozen guys out of the pen every year.

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  6. Mike H says:

    The Phillies signed a decent RP to a cheap contract & only committed to one year.

    Could they have gotten the same production from the youngsters? Maybe.

    But it seems like exactly the kind of a signing a contending team should make. Add depth & another quality arm as insurance against injuries, ineffectiveness, whatever.

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  7. Roger Goodell says:

    Phils won’t carry 8 relievers. Papelbon, Contreras, Qualls, Bastardo, Willis, Stutes, and Kendrick. There won’t be a spot for Herndon or the young guys.

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    • Not Dave says:

      Contreras is a huge question mark and Willis has to at least find the strike zone in ST to make the squad. Blanton might not be ready as well, sliding Kendrick into the starting rotation.

      If i had to rank the youngsters who are most likely to contribute, I would go De Fratus, Schwimer, SAVERY, Aumont. I think they will take it slow with Aumont.

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      • Roger Goodell says:

        The point is they won’t carry 8 relievers and a 4 man bench.

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      • Brad Johnson says:

        Willis is there to face lefties and only lefties. If they manage him properly, he should face over 70% lefties. He walked two and hit one in 60 PA in 2011. Obviously a very small sample, but it doesn’t seem like control should be a major concern at first glance.

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  8. cable fixer says:

    The buried lead: “Speaking of Contreras, it’s entirely possible that this move signals that the Phillies lack confidence in his ability to stay healthy this year.”

    40(?) year old RP who only pitched 14 innings last year? It’s tough not to think that durability wouldn’t be a legitimate concern.

    As for the Phillies AAA pitching depth…I had no idea cheap pitching depth was something to scorn. The Phillies spent last year being (righly) killed for their lack of bench and iffy bullpen. Now that they’re improving (at a minimal $ cost and at a cost to michael schwimer’s PT), depth is “unnecessary”? Given the chance (likelihood) of injuries and/or ineffectiveness due to the high variance nature of RP in general on the ML roster I suspect that de fratus and schwimer will get a shot at some point this year.

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  9. Not Dave says:

    I am actually surprised they got Qualls this cheap, he’s still a legit 7th inning guy.

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    • Ken Bland says:

      Is he? He looks more like Dontrelle Willis in reverse at this point. A speciailist carrying risk against opposite handed hitters. Brad Lidge showed results like that last year, and for about the same money, I’m a little surprised that chose Qualls over Lidge. But at least Qualls figures to be healthy. But picking and choosing spots for him seems wise. I’m pretty much in line with Eric’s point about this being unnecessary because I’d be surprised if he’s used effectively.

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      • Brad Johnson says:

        You hit the nail on the head – the Phillies have enough injury prone players. Getting Lidge off the stack allows the training staff to focus on more important players than middle relievers.

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      • Not Dave says:

        Lidge’s contract has major incentives baked into it, so if he’s in any way productive he’ll be much more expensive than Qualls this year.

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      • Ken Bland says:

        In reply to Not Dave, who says Lidge’s deal has major incentives baked into it, I thought this might be a good point, though no specifics are mentioned, so I checked Cots, which simply says he has incentives based on appearances, and games finished. So I’ll guess Lidge could be more expensive than Qualls, but it’s a near certainty based on his place in the pen (preceding Clippard and Storen that his games finished incentives are like Kyle Kendrick’s incentives for winning the CY.

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  10. West says:

    1.5 mil is irrelevant to the Phillies, this isn’t the Rays.

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    • zeke says:

      You’re missing the main point. The Phils are right up against the lux tax, every dollar saved now affords them flexibility later. By signing Qualls they cost themselves financial wiggle-room and added a redundant piece to the roster.

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  11. Jonny5 says:

    I fear Qualls = Danys Baez part 2. At least it’s a one year deal.

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  12. DD says:

    As long as the Phils only use Qualls against righties at home, they will be fine (go look at his splits for the last few years). Of course, as Eric mentions, Charlie Manuel will use him in tie games in the eighth for a full inning.

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  13. jpg says:

    I agree 100% with Cable Fixer. I hate the Phillies so there’s no homerism here. A cheap, one year deal for an established RP is a solid move. Eric within 2 paragraphs you explain why it was. (Contreras injury concerns, Willis and his myriad of issues). Are we really counting on Bastardo pitching out of his mind for four months again this year? Seems like some regression is in order. It reminds me of Swydan’s piece on Pierre last week. The guy is more than adequate as a 4th OF, pinch runner, guy who can a get bunt down, which is exactly what he was signed for…Yet the tone of the analysis would leave one to believe that the Phillies gave him a multi year deal and planned pencil him into leadoff spot every day. And don’t tell me he’s blocking Dom Brown because he isn’t. For a team on Philly’s end of the win curve these moves make a lot of sense. They cost next to nothing and provide valuable depth.

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      DC had an article last year about teams that maximize upside versus those that minimize downside. When a roster reaches a certain level where it’s considered a strong favorite to win a division, it’s important to start minimizing downside.

      These moves, Pierre and Qualls, minimize downside. There might be more upside going with Aumont and Brown, but those guys could turn in terrible seasons in 2012 and really hurt the team. Those are roster spots where the Phillies really just need guys who won’t hurt them.

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      • B N says:

        This. Though given Howard’s condition, I can’t say they’re a lock for a playoff spot. However, if they do end up fighting for a playoff spot, upside in their middle relief is highly unlikely to be the deciding factor… while an explosion in the middle relief? Well, that could lose a race.

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      • jpg says:

        Exactly. My Mets are looking into Ibanez or Damon. For a team that’s a good bet for a distant last place finish…That’s the definition of a stupid, unnecessary move. I would have rather gotten further proof Fernando Martinez sucks.

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  14. zeke says:

    Everyone is ignoring the salary cap implications. Also in theory bullpen depth is less important for a team that should be top one or two in the league in starter’s IP’ed and CG’s. So a million+ for a guy who will be insurance, righty specialist, or 3rd string set-up man doesn’t seem the most effective way of using the last few dollars in your pocket especially when the bullpen is already a strong point as far as organizational depth.

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    • cable fixer says:

      mlb doesn’t have a salary cap.

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      • jpg says:

        He probably means the Phillies “budget” as opposed to “salary cap” but I still disagree. A one year commitment at a little over a mil isn’t going to stop Philly from making another move down the line if they feel the need to.

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    • zach says:

      Yeah, I obviously meant luxury tax, I guess I’m not in mid-season form. As for my argument, the FO knows more about the teams finances than I do, bit it seems odd to free up salary by trading Valdez and then add that salary right back. My point is that you can’t just say “low salary, high upside, good move” without factoring in salary implications and whether or not they could get similar or better production from within the organization.

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      • cable fixer says:

        I mean this in a complete non-snarky way: How do any of us really know what the Phillies finances are? This luxury tax threshold is oft-repeated but is seemingly unsubstantiated and also somewhat refuted by the Qualls signing. If that money really doesn’t exist, then they wouldn’t have brought in Qualls, right?

        As for zach/zeke’s initial point: ” [signing qualls] doesn’t seem the most effective way of using the last few dollars in your pocket especially when the bullpen is already a strong point.” Ok, I’ll bite on the opportunity cost argument: what is a more effective way to spend that money? Since you mentioned him…300 more ABs of .275 OBA from Wilson Valdez?

        I also disagree (kind of) that the bullpen is a strong point. Prior to the Qualls signing, they were relying a 40 year old with health concerns to pitch the 8th. While the Phillies should be applauded for fixing their depth issues–cheaply too–any bullpen that’s relying on Jose Contreras in high leverage spots has at least one major question mark, IMO.

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      • zeke says:

        Fair arguments cablefixer. To be clear, I’m not trashing the signing outright or claiming to know what to do with the Phillies’ money. I do, however, agree with the author’s premise that given what we do know about the team’s payroll and organizational depth that the signing can be characterized as “unnecessary” and questionable.
        These are the things we are forced to debate in February.

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  15. last72stop says:

    Seems like an unnecessarily long essay about an unnecessary reliever. I rarely hear the term “we have too much pitching” thrown around in baseball. I think they’ll be just fine… I also doubt they are clueless about where this leaves them financially and have 1 or 2 or 5 contingency plans to make things work out for the best. They get paid a few dollars to do this kind of thing.

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  16. BOB KUDELSKI says:

    PAPELBON WILL BLOW A LOTS OF LATE INNING SAVES, IT WASN’T UNCOMMON FOR HIM TO LET A RUN IN OR 2 IN AND RUIN THE SAVE, HE WAS LUCKY THE RED SOX GAVE HIM A GOOD CUSHION OF RUNS MOST TIME, TO COVER HIS BAD PITCHING!!!!!!!!!!HOLD ON TO YOUR SEAT, IT WILL BE A SHAKY RUN WITH HIM!!!!!!!

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  17. LuckyNucky says:

    “The Phillies had a 4-3 lead over the Marlins, but that all changed when Herndon surrendered three home runs in one inning”. This was a 7th inning gaff and cost Cole a ‘W’. A tough loss and one the Phils do not want to repeat. Enter Chad Qualls in that situation. Herndon is the wrong deal, not Qualls. Ask most fans what happens when Herndon is announced. A resounding… AHHHHHH.

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